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An image from "Mexotica"
at Fototeka Gallery, Los Angeles

From "Mexotica"
Latin Love
by Alex Worman

"Mexotica: Mid-Century Glamour Portraits," May 4-June 2, 2002, at Fototeka Gallery, 1549 Echo Park Avenue, Los Angeles, Ca. 90026

With "breast man" Russ Meyer's "Ultra Vixen" photos on display at Mark Moore in Santa Monica and Feigen Contemporary in Chelsea, and a plethora of Bunny Yeager's glamour girl titles lining bookstore shelves, it's clear that mid-century smut has gained considerable nostalgia value. Now, add to the stash a recent show at Fototeka Gallery in Echo Park in Los Angeles, "Mexotica," an enticing exhibition of Mexican pinup photography from the 1950s and 60s.

Fototeka founders Merrick Morton and Robin Blackman made something of a stir last year with their exhibition of material from the archive of the L.A. police department. These new photos are somewhat more sultry.

In 1996, Morton, a still photographer for Hollywood films, found a cache of 300 glass-encased transparencies of voluptuous pinup girls in a cramped antique store in Mexico City while working on Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. At that time, the owner did not want to sell them. Cut to four years later in 2000, when Morton was back in Mexico working on The Mexican. He once again visited the antique store, and this time the owner decided to sell the historic trove.

Morton edited the 300 images down to a key selection of 26 stunning color shots of bodacious muchachas. "They could have been models, exotic dancers, actresses or prostitutes," Morton says. The identity of the photographer, however, is a big question mark. "We do have a lead," he confides. "We discovered that one of the images is of the famous Spanish actress Sara Montiel, who's now living in Spain. We're sending her the images to see if she can identify the photographer."

Fototeka says that experts who have examined the images believe they could possibly be attributed to the infamous Mexican glamour photographer Niuglo, whose work frequently appeared in Mexico City's Vea and Vo-Devil magazines.

"These images are very rare," Morton says, "as color film was rarely used in Mexico in the 1950s." The survival of the negatives is even more surprising when you consider that in the mid-1950s, police-assisted mobs gathered to destroy "scandalous" literature and pictorials due to the politics and censorship of the times.

The "Mexotica" exhibition almost didn't pan out after Mexico City airport security guards were reluctant to let Morton depart the country with the racy images. "They started to search through the box of slides, and when they saw the nudes they called for additional security," Morton remembers. "They started pulling them all out. It got very tense." Fortunately, Morton's explanation of what they were for finally convinced the officers to let him through.

Though the images are hardly indecent by today's standards (most of the models are either fully clothed or just partially disrobed), their palette of muted pastels and mid-century furnishings, as well as the slight color shift in the negatives, give them an appealing vintage quality, a perfect complement to Eames furnishings and other Streamline Moderne accessories. One can even imagine the hipster ad execs at Gap or Calvin Klein sprucing up their next ad campaigns with period styling adapted from the "Mexotica" look.

Holly Meyer recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the women posing for the pinups seemed to have a wide variety of expressions -- flirty or playful, nervous or frightened, indifferent or mercenary. Curiously, even in the postmodernist, Cindy Sherman era, hints of real people can be glimpsed in this 50-year-old inventory of female "types."

Fototeka is offering "Mexotica" images in 11 x 14 in. or 16 x 20 in formats, in editions of 20. Prices range from $275 to $350. Muy bueno!

ALEX WORMAN works in the film industry.